New low-cost and easy-to-use neuro-headsets offer a new tool for tracking people’s emotional responses to places and events. Using these allows us to transcend the division between ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ data on wellbeing in interesting ways.
When we provide people with goods or services or environments, we ought to try to learn about how these things are experienced. What do they feel like? How do their effects interact with other influences on people’s wellbeing? The simplest way of doing this is to ask people how they feel about things. But raw feelings are different from remembered feelings. And people may report what they think is expected of them, or what they think they ought to feel. Subconsciously, or secretly, their experiences may be quite different to what they report. In any case, feelings and self-evaluations are complex. We struggle to keep track of ourselves, let alone share our feelings reliably with other people. What if, instead of relying on objective external indicators such as repeat purchases or usage rates, or on subjective information such as self-reported satisfactions, we could more directly and objectively measure people’s experiences by monitoring the activities of their brains? This is where recent developments in mobile brain-monitoring technology could provide exciting new opportunities for the assessment of experienced wellbeing.
For over 100 years, it has been possible to measure brain activity using electro-encephalography, or EEG for short. Only in the last few years has this capability been available in the low-cost and mobile form of EEG headsets. These can help us track people’s brain activities while in various different environments. Using these new mobile EEG neuroheadsets, we can gather information that is relevant to understanding people’s emotional response to various kinds of events, or changes in the environment.
A project led by the University of Edinburgh’s Open-Space Centre has been pioneering the use of EEG headsets to monitor people’s emotional responses while walking through various kinds of urban environment, such as busy streets, road crossings, quieter streets, and green parks. In this video I interview Prof Richard Coyne from the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture about how the data collected from these headsets can be used, and we give a simple demonstration to show how even someone with no understanding of neuroscience can quickly get a rough grasp of some of the patterns that EEG read-outs reveal.
It is of course highly debatable whether and how we can translate between numerical measures of electrical activity in the brain, to the complex and highly nuanced and situation-specific language of emotion. Still, these recent experiments are at the very least showing the potential of new technology to provide ‘objective’ data on ‘subjective’ experiences. This can help us triangulate between the kinds of evidence favoured by the supposedly ‘objective’ world of hard science, and the more everyday qualitative evidence of how people make sense of their emotions and moods by putting them into words.
EEG for mobile emotion monitoringSo far, EEG headsets have been used to learn about outdoor exercise, shopping experiences, watching films, and online gaming. If you could use an EEG headset to learn more about your own emotional experiences, what aspects of your life would you like to monitor?